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It's S.C., so bring your 'big boy pants'

By Hollis Felkel, Special to CNN
updated 7:08 PM EST, Mon January 16, 2012
Mitt Romney holds 5-week-old Johnathon Kelly during a rally at the Hilton Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Mitt Romney holds 5-week-old Johnathon Kelly during a rally at the Hilton Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hollis Felkel: South Carolina primary winner historically ends up with GOP presidential nod
  • He says GOP there dominated by Christian conservatives, but engaged on diverse issues
  • He says right-to-work, immigration, tax and defense issues matter, but mostly jobs
  • Felkel: Regions of state may differ on candidates, but GOP united on wanting to beat Obama

Editor's note: Hollis "Chip" Felkel is a native South Carolinian and a 25-year veteran of national politics and policy. He is the CEO of Felkel Group and The RAP Index, a business that identifies key contacts in public affairs. He is co-author of Political Golf. See www.felkelgroup.com or www.politicalgolf.com.

(CNN) -- In recent days, the South Carolina Republican primary has been referred to as the Super Bowl, ground zero and even "Armageddon." This hyperbole has been matched by the outrageous amount of money being spent here on political TV advertising: $11.3 million.

Why? There is a lot at stake in Saturday's contest, and the campaigns know it. Without a strong finish, candidates will find that cash, supporters and key endorsements dry up. With it, they'll live to fight another day. Either way, South Carolina Republicans will most likely continue their tradition of picking the candidate who turns out to be the GOP nominee, something they have done since 1980.

Here is a political primer from an actual South Carolinian who is a veteran of many of these battles:

First: Does the South Carolina GOP primary deserve its reputation as a take-no-prisoners, bare-knuckled battleground, like the media keep saying? Yes. Post-New Hampshire, my tweet urged the candidates to "bring their big boy pants."

Hollis Felkel
Hollis Felkel

We have a long tradition here of hard-hitting attacks, both on the air and below the radar. This year is no different. We don't just pick a candidate, we pick presidents here in South Carolina. Most of the campaigning is done in 15 GOP-leaning counties, which account for 80% of the vote, with a focus on a "Super Seven" that make up more than 52% of the vote. Those seven pit the Upstate social conservatives against the laissez-faire crowd along the Coast.

In South Carolina, we don't register by parties; the GOP primary is open to all those who call themselves Republicans. Our voters are a much more diverse group than those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yes, Christian conservatives dominate the GOP here, but victory in South Carolina means you have successfully appealed to a wide variety of Republican concerns. It means you have the support of fiscal conservatives (Coast and Upstate), social conservatives (Upstate and all around), transplanted retirees (Upstate and Coastal Low Country), business owners (Statewide) and veterans (Midlands and Coast).

Yes, many of us do cling to our Bibles, our guns, and also to our status as a right-to-work state.

We are not big fans of the federal government. (Example: The National Labor Relations Board recently tried to prevent Boeing from building a multibillion-dollar plant in Charleston that would create thousands of jobs because the board's counsel said Boeing was punishing workers in Washington state for union activity; the NLRB has since dropped the case.) But I would be lying if I said the majority of South Carolina GOP voters are strongly anti-government. Most here think there is a role for the government, but we disagree on just how big it should be.

Like everywhere else, the key issue here is jobs. Yes, social issues matter a lot to voters. Immigration reform matters. Taxes and defense issues matter. But jobs and economic development matter most in 2012. Our 9.9% statewide unemployment puts us ahead of the national average and is partially due to a lack of jobs in rural areas. And yet, other areas are doing fairly well.

Consider that this past week, BMW announced a new $900 million investment that is expected to bring 300 new jobs, for starters, to Spartanburg in the Upstate. Along with the German automaker, we are also home to Michelin, Hitachi, Boeing (no thanks to the NLRB), Milliken and many other manufacturers. We have thousands of small-business owners who take personal and professional risks every single day, creating jobs and opportunities for their families and communities.

It is against this backdrop that close to 400,000 voters will cast their ballots Saturday. Each is really focused on one overriding theme: beating President Obama. They will come from across the GOP spectrum, not just those hard-core ideologues that seem to make the most news.

To give you an example, consider that on Sunday, Mitt Romney secured the endorsement of The Greenville News, in the heart of the social conservatives. Jon Huntsman, before dropping out of the race, received the endorsement of The State, of Columbia. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are doing their best to recover from missteps and misstatements, and, well, Ron Paul is Ron Paul.

And of course, Rick Santorum is hoping to somehow capitalize on the support of the faith-based community after a conclave of evangelical leaders in Texas threw their support to him this past weekend. This will be more difficult with Perry and Gingrich still in the race, splitting the evangelical vote.

As for results, barring a major mistake, I think Romney -- who is, and has consistently been, running well ahead of his rivals -- will be the last man standing here Saturday night. And once again, South Carolina will have done her job.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hollis Felkel.

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